Review: New in Chess's enthusiastic authors
How can you tell an interesting chess book from an uninteresting one? There are many ways, but I'd say the easiest way is to open the book at a random page and look for signs of enthusiasm and passion in the author's words. Four new publications by New in Chess share this aspect in more ways than one.
New in Chess has an excellent track record when it comes to enlisting enthusiastic authors. Think Ilya Odessky and his Play 1.b3; think Jerry van Rekom and Leo Jansen with their The Black Lion. Think Alexander Morozevich and his monograph on the Chigorin Defence. These are passionate (if not always entirely objective) pleas for the author's favourite openings that guarantee an equally avid audience and subsequent high sales figures.
I want to take this opportunity to say a few words about the Dutch chess magazine Matten, Schaakverhalen, the editors of which, Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, Allard Hoogland and Rob van Vuure, are quite possibly the most enthusiastic in the profession of chess publishing. With almost evangelic passion they have been successfully promoting their magazine over the years in the Dutch chess scene. Matten 8, their most recent brainchild, may well be the most interesting issue to date. In an epic tribute to Mikhail Tal, spanning over 60 pages, GM Genna Sosonko details his friendship with and love for the Eigth World Champion. His style of writing, full of references to the world of literature, art and politics, might not appeal to all readers, but is undeniably erudite and - crucially - highly relevant in its enthusiasm for the subject at hand.
I was even more impressed by John Kuipers' much shorter, but very intriguing portrait of young star Anish Giri. As a journalist, Kuipers clearly isn't troubled by revealing his inner thoughts about Giri, which are sometimes painfully descriptive yet very much to the point.
For a moment, a fragment of a second, Giri sent a superior glance across the audience, before producing the most haughty grin of all time. First, he raised his eyebrows high: surprise. Then his eyebrows rose to unknown heights: respectless condescension tumbled out of him. This was followed by a brief nodding of the head, the crown to this magnificent display of humiliating superiority. Then followed, of course, the simple winning little move.
In fact, most pieces in Matten 8 are excellent reads. I especially liked Eric van Reem's well-written inside story about Vishy Anand's road-adventures to Sofia during the Iceland volcano eruptions, Gert Ligterink's description of a beautiful photograph of him and Tal, and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam's hilarious story titled 'A Day in the Life of Gata Kamsky', about Maxim Dlugy's encounters with Gata and his infamous father Rustam. Sure enough, there are bound to be disappointments in a magazine with articles from ten different authors, but all the same it's a pity English readers cannot enjoy this Dutch treasure trove.
New in Chess has also enlisted veteran GM Evgeny Sveshnikov ('The Alapin Variation's Greatest Expert'). His prolific new book The Complete c3 Sicilian has almost the same number of pages as Jonathan Franzen's latest novel Freedom, and appears to be equally ambitious. While not lacking in enthusiasm, the book's premise seems a bit paradoxical: from the back cover, the reader is assured that "White is very solid", that "the system can be learned quickly", that "theory doesn't develop quickly, so maintaining your knowledge is fairly simple" and that "White has to study only a few set-ups", but yours truly was left wondering why, then, the book consisted of 550+ pages instead of, say, 50.
The answer is that Sveshnikov gives hundreds of illustrative games played with the 2.c3 Sicilian, often heavily analysed not only in the opening and middlegame but also deep into the endgame. He spends only a relatively (but not unreasonably) small amount of the book's space on historical overviews and the basic plans and ideas. Before looking at some of the good things the book has to offer, let's mention its most conspicuous flaw: the fact that Sveshnikov devotes a mere two and a half pages (excluding some illustrative games) to all deviations from Black's main moves 2...d5 and 2...Nf6.
Thus, after 2...e6 3.d4 d5 the author simply mentions 4.e5! as a good way to deal with Black's plans, thereby transposing to the Advance Variation of the French which, Sveshnikov solemnly promises us, "is objectively better for White, whose advantage here is at least as great as in the initial position, if not greater." And, of course, because the French is not actually part of this book, white players can simply stop worrying about "quickly developing theory" or "studying only a few set-ups" - until, that is, they close the book and face the position in a real game.
After this exceptionally light-hearted (but definitely enthusiastic) first introduction, Sveshnikov, to his credit, does a much better job of taking his reader seriously in the following chapters, but unfortunately, his explanations remain specked with bold statements about the variation's advantages ("a blunder" sometimes means Black makes a move that guarantees White a small advantage) that are especially hard to swallow given its rather limited adoption at top grandmaster level. Take a line such as the following:
1.e4 c5 2.c3 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Na3 e6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nb5 Na6 8.Qxd4 Bc5 9.Qxd5 Nxd5
In the chapter "The Typical Endgame with a White Queenside Majority", Sveshnikov explains about this endgame:
In his day, Steinitz singled out the queenside majority as an important positional element. It is interesting to consider how this advantage should be exploited. Using his lead in development, White can easily start to push his pawns on the queenside and exchange as many pieces as possible. Black's counterplay is linked to his pawn majority in the centre. A very important question is: who controls square e5? If Black does not manage to play ...e5 then he is condemned to passive defence.
This does sound atttractive, and indeed the endgame is very interesting and instructive to study in detail, but I did raise an eyebrow when I saw, a little further on, in the chapter with "Important Games by Variation", that Sveshnikov himself was apparently happy to draw this position as White after just three more moves: Sveshnikov-Kobalia, Dubai 2002 ended peacefully after 10.b4 Be7 11.a3 Nac7 12.Nxc7 1/2-1/2. Not very convincing marketing for your beloved system if you ask me.
Of course, he probably just had an off day, and there are many beautiful and sharp wins in the book by both Sveshnikov and other White experts of this line. In fact, the very next game after the above-mentioned bloodless draw is a spectacular victory by the author, energetically analysed:
I give this move an exclamation mark not so much for its strength but for the aesthetic pleasure which chessplayers and fans derive from such combinations. If the h5 bishop is sacrificed immediately by 16.Bxf7+ Kxf7 17.Nxe6 then Black has the strong reply 17...Rf8!. Therefore it is necessary first of all to pull the queen onto the fork and simultaneously deflect her from the defence of the f7 pawn. It is interesting that Fritz recognizes this as the best move only after a long 'think'.
So, the first sacrifice on the theme of 'deflecting and trapping the queen'!
And White won the endgame after lively complications. Still, I can't help feeling these games won't stop the majority of players being a bit ambiguous about this variation: very interesting, and not bad at all, but in the end - and despite 560 pages of interesting and highly enthusiastic analyses - it's still maybe just a little bit too, well, 'solid'.
Of an entirely different category is Viktor Moskalenko's latest opening book about the anything-but-solid French Winawer, poetically (and enthusiastically) called The Wonderful Winawer. This is probably one of the most intense opening books I've ever read: it's so choke-full of ideas and encouraging statements that I often felt a little overwhelmed by it - mostly in a good way, I should add. Moskalenko is probably one of the most original, I'd even say: hermetic, chess authors of this day, and it shows on practically every page.
In his introduction, the greatest connoisseur of the French alive, Viktor Korchnoi, rightly says Moskalenko writes "with soul". The book literally brims with double exclamation marks, devious tricks, once-forgotten-but-now-revitalized ideas, quintessential quotes, noteworthy novelties and thought-provoking italicized musings. Moskalenko's prose, enriched by various font types and sizes, is so intoxicating that I often felt as if I was falling down a rabbit-hole and taking a hallucinatory trip to Winawer-Wonderland. Here's a example from the chapter on the 'Armenian Variation':
Gibraltar 2010 (1)
This Armenian 'Snake Bishop' (...Bb4-a5-c7) now defends the d6-square and at the same time attacks the pawn on e5.
8.f4! The immediate capture of the Armenian bishop 8.Nxc7+?! in fact reduces the possibilities for White: 8...Qxc7 9.f4 f6!? with counterplay. Nor does 8.Nf3?! Nc6 with counterplay give White any advantage, because the pawn on e5 is not well enough defended now.
Now Black has several possibilities.
8...a5 Black does not choose the best continuation. The German chess coach Michael Tscharotschkin is a great supporter of the Armenian line. In two recent games he played this advance against strong players, but failed.
A) WEAPON: 8...Bd7!!
This is clearly the strongest set-up for Black. The French bishop has to help his Armenian brother!
But wait, I've not even succeeded yet in giving you a correct impression of what the book looks like, because next to the word 'WEAPON' there's actually an icon of a classic Western gun! (Next to the 'tricks' there's a picture of a magician's hat.) In fact, there's much to laugh in The Wonderful Winawer. The author relishes in ironic and half-serious remarks about the positions, both illuminating and easing the student's task. The chapter on the Eingorn Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.Qg4 Kf8!?) starts with the following motto:
With a bad king position, the position can't be equal! - Viktor Korchnoi
From a theoretical perspective, I believe Moskalenko's book is very important. As someone who has studied the Winawer extensively as White, I've always wondered why this variation was so infrequently played by top level players in recent years. Some years ago, fellow ChessVibes-editor Merijn van Delft and I concluded that the 7...Qc7 Winawer was perhaps one of the most underestimated lines after 1.e4. We never quite understood what was wrong with it from a theoretical perspective: every line we studied looked extremely risky for White! In this light, it was nice to notice Moskalenko writing things like:
It is surprising that well-known theoreticians such as grandmasters Golubev, B.Savchenko, Amonatov and even super-grandmaster Shirov end up in such bad positions after just a few opening moves with white!
The Wonderful Winawer is a true roller-coaster ride of a book. Like the Prelude of Bach's English Suite No.2 in A Minor for keyboard, which has been compared to the "Big Bang" (an interpretation by pianist Glenn Gould can be enjoyed here), the book takes off with a bang ("Welcome to the Wonderful Winawer!") and never gives you a moment's rest until the final note (the dramatic game Nakamura-Shulman, USA-championship 2010, ending in victory for Black). It's a hell of a trip.
During the trip, I sometimes did long for a bit of air, a moment's rest, an opportunity to take my foot off the gas and reflect on things from a higher viewpoint, but Moskalenko doesn't let his readers off the hook for one second. And this is good. In the end, his enthusiasm is both convincing and completely devoid of self-congratulatory sentiments. (In fact, he corrects his previous book on this opening, The Flexible French, on several points.)
Finally, I want to mention a fourth, highly passionately-written book published recently by New in Chess. It's a considerably extended and updated edition of Mihai Suba's Pergamon classic Dynamic Chess Strategy and well worth buying even if you already possess the original. Suba's book is a landmark in chess literature and was extensively used as an example of modern dynamism in John Watson's acclaimed Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy.
In this new version, Suba actually responds to Watson, clarifies some issues and admits he's learned things he didn't know before since the book's first publication, in 1991. And, of course, he explains his theories in even more detailed ways. The new edition is beautifully published and is still as relevant and funny as it was almost 20 years ago.
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